Clint’s ass is numb. Actually, Clint’s everything is numb. He’s been sitting in this tree not moving for at least nine hours now, and it takes more patience than a saint to be a sniper, but this is starting to push Clint’s limits. It’s freezing and his trigger finger is cramping up just enough to make him wish for his bow instead. (Course, he’s always wishing for his bow when he doesn’t have it. It’s his comfort zone. He’s got the sight necessary for a sniper rifle, but he hates the disconnect—he has more control over an arrow than a bullet.)
“Any chance this guy decided to take a last-minute vacation instead?” Clint asks and Coulson sighs.
“Barton.” It’s amazing how much exasperation Coulson can fit into two syllables.
“I’m bored as fuck and this guy is seven and a half hours late. Maybe somebody else killed him first. I bet MI6 is on his scent.”
“They’ve got bigger problems right now.”
“Oooh, like what? I love top secret interagency gossip.”
“Hawkeye.” Okay, that one was two syllables of pure reprimand. Once it escalates to two syllables of if you don’t stop I’m going make you watch while I put all your bows through a wood-chipper one at a time, Clint knows to shut up. Luckily, they’re about twelve levels below that right now.
“I’ll tell you mine if you tell me yours.”
“What gossip could you possibly have that I don’t already know, Barton?”
Coulson has a point. He always knows everything before Clint does, even when Clint gets his intel from the air duct above Fury’s office. “I know who’s been stealing all the everything bagels.” It’s a lie, he’s got no fucking clue and he really doesn’t care.
“No you don’t.” Coulson says, and Clint can almost hear the smile in his voice.
“We’ll call it an educated guess. Sitwell sometimes has onion breath, and he looks like a bagel thief.”
“Sitwell has a gluten intolerance.”
“I don’t even want to know how you know that, sir.”
“I know everything, Barton.”
Clint laughs, low and quiet. “I know.”
“Good. Have you gotten the chatty out of your system yet?”
“Well, that’ll have to be enough for now. Back to radio silence.”
Coulson lets him down out of the tree two hours later and they retreat to their SHIELD safe house, which is miserably small (really house is a bit of a stretch; apartment would be more accurate, or maybe broom cupboard) and not that much warmer than the outdoors. Phil rubs the feeling back into Clint’s feet and hands before running him a bath and leaving him to soak while he goes to go pick up a pizza. Clint is dragging on sweats and a t-shirt when Phil comes back with dinner.
“That’s mine,” he nods at Clint’s shirt and Clint looks down to see, yeah, he’s wearing Phil’s Harvard t-shirt, soft and faded with age, the letters peeling at their edges. He stole it by accident and he doesn’t plan on giving it back anytime soon.
Still, he can’t resist teasing a little. “I can take it off,” he offers.
Phil shakes his head. “Put some more layers on. You’re making me cold just looking at you.”
“You know I run hot,” Clint grins, but he shrugs into his favourite purple sweatshirt and zips it up.
Phil rolls his eyes and sets the pizza down on the bed. Clint doesn’t have a lot of faith in pizza from a tiny town in northern Alberta, but it’s surprisingly all right, if he overlooks the rubbery cheese and the undercooked dough.
“Seriously, why Canada?”
“Low population, plenty of remote areas, fairly lax borders.” Phil rattles off dryly.
“Yeah, but it’s also fucking freezing.”
“Where would you hide, then?” Phil arches an eyebrow at him.
Clint snorts. “Don’t hide. Cut a deal with the agency trying to catch you. Worked for me.”
“That only works when you have a valuable skill worth recruiting. Funnily enough, SHIELD isn't in the market for any human traffickers this month.”
“Aw, I love it when you talk sweet to me. Tell me more about my valuable skills.”
Phil rolls his eyes. “Your ego doesn’t need stroking.”
“I can think of some other things that do.”
“Clint.” Phil says, and Clint sighs dramatically at the warning but doesn’t protest. They have rules for a reason, boundaries they can’t cross, especially in the field and Clint can’t really complain considering he did help write the rules. (And no, that’s not just an expression; there is an actual list of rules filed away in Coulson’s desk, complete with cross-references to their list of acceptable times to break the rules. This isn’t one of them.)
Still, Phil stretches out next to him on the bed and doesn’t stop Clint curling up with his head pillowed on Phil’s chest, his ear pressed against Phil’s steadily thudding heartbeat. Phil cards his fingers through Clint’s hair and Clint leans into the touch, letting himself relax for the first time in at least twenty-four hours.
“I was married once.” Phil says softly.
“Yeah?” Clint asks. Sometimes it’s crazy, how he can know Phil as well as he does and have absolutely no clue about things like this.
Phil nods. “It was a long time ago, right out of college.”
“She couldn’t handle it?”
“No, Lizzie was great. Very understanding. It was me that couldn’t handle it.”
“Really?” Clint finds that a little hard to believe, considering Phil is the most on top of things of anybody he’s ever met.
“We were too young, and I didn’t know how to balance my professional life with my personal life. I picked SHIELD over her.”
“Where is she now?”
“Connecticut. She’s married to a chef and they’ve got three very annoying kids. She’s happy.”
Clint nods, digesting this. He’s not really surprised Phil was married. He’s ten years older than Clint is, and from what he’s heard about Phil’s childhood, it sounds like it was the happy kind that didn’t leave him with any complexes about marriage or commitment. But it’s difficult to reconcile a Phil who couldn’t multitask between work and wife with the Phil who balances everything pretty flawlessly now. Unless that’s what he’s trying to say.
“So maybe it’s a good thing I’m your professional life and your personal life all rolled into one. No tough choices.” Clint says, and he’s mostly teasing but a little bit of doubt creeps into his voice and he knows from the way Phil tenses next to him that the other man picks up on it.
The thing is, there’s a pretty real possibility that someday one (or both) of them is going to have to make a tough choice. It’s the nature of their jobs, there are tough choices every day and some of them are just more personal than others. Technically, SHIELD doesn’t have any anti-fraternization regulations, but there are always expectations; for SHIELD agents, the agency comes first and their personal lives come second, and it’s something of a conflict of interest when the two intersect.
“Clint. Look at me,” Phil says, his free hand curling around Clint’s jaw, tipping his face up. Phil’s eyes are soft and warm and for a second Clint wonders if he’s about to get the world’s kindest I love you, but… speech.
“If there’s ever a choice, it’s going to be the easiest one I ever make. I care about you.”
Clint actually feels a little bit paralysed by that, because that’s not really how they do things. They don’t make grand declarations of feelings because it never seemed like they needed to, except maybe they do need to do this more often because Clint isn’t sure if it’s normal to be this surprised when your boyfriend (Partner? Lover? Medical proxy? They’ve never worried about terminology) says he puts you first.
“I couldn’t ask you to do that.” Clint manages finally, and he really couldn’t. The idea of Phil without SHIELD or SHIELD without Phil is so unfathomable it’s almost a crime to even entertain the idea. Phil practically is SHIELD, and while he appreciates the sentiment, he’s not sure if he really believes Phil could walk away just like that.
“I know.” Phil says and presses his lips lightly to Clint’s temple once. It’s bending a rule, but Clint needs him to (which is on the acceptable exception list).
The next day is pretty much the same as the one before, with Clint freezing his ass off on a roof (which is a slight improvement on yesterday’s tree) and Phil freezing his ass off sitting and waiting for their target to show up.
Which he doesn’t. Again.
The same goes for the next two days after that, and then fucking finally, the asshole turns up and Clint puts a bullet in his skull, which is a little anticlimactic after four days of waiting, but such is the life of a sniper.
It turns out being in Nowhere, Alberta on a mission that overruns by three days means they’re either stuck waiting for a few days for a transport to swing up from Michigan to come get them, or they can rent a car and drive back to HQ. Clint doesn’t know quite how Phil manages it, because it’s not like there’s a Hertz on what passes for Main Street here, but he finds them a car and they do the trip back through Canada, and Clint is ninety-eight percent sure it’s because Phil wants to have the distinction of successfully talking himself out of a speeding ticket in every country they visit.
After two and a half days of driving through a lot of wilderness and not many cities (or even towns), they cross the border into Buffalo and decide to stop for the night because anything is preferable to sleeping in the car again. Of all the places they’ve been sent on missions, Buffalo is not one of them. Clint thinks the circus probably stopped at least once, but all the cities started blending together after a couple years so it’s hard to say.
They find some dinner and a hotel and eat in the room, easily ignoring the busy hum of activity surrounding the strip of nightclubs half a block away. Phil spins through TV channels, bypassing a couple halfway decent movies before stopping on an episode of Hoarders. Clint’s only surprised he didn’t hold out and check the last fifteen channels for Supernanny.
“No Jo tonight?” He teases, stretching out comfortably on the bed, pressed tight against Phil’s side.
“It’s Thursday. She’s on Fridays.”
“Right.” Clint laughs. “How could I forget?”
They fall asleep early, still mostly clothed and on top of the covers, and Clint jerks awake in the middle of the night with the TV still on and Phil’s arm thrown across his stomach, warm and possessive. He fumbles for the remote and turns off the TV, and is tempted to get up and close the curtains or they’ll be in for a rude awakening tomorrow, but he’s comfortable and Phil is sleeping easily for once, which makes Clint reluctant to move and risk waking him.
He studies Phil’s face and thinks about what the other man said a few days ago. It’s still overwhelming to think about, because Clint has never been anybody’s first choice. (At least, not in his personal life. Being the world’s greatest marksman has put him at the top of a few lists, not all of them good ones.)
Unsurprisingly, they wake early the next morning when the sun starts pouring into the room, and while Phil showers, Clint goes down to the lobby for the continental breakfast and brings the food back upstairs. They watch the local news while they eat, and the weather forecast predicts snow starting in the next few hours, which doesn’t really matter to them since they’ll probably be beyond Syracuse by then, unless Clint drives.
“For the record,” Clint says while shoving his purple hoodie into his bag, “I’d pick you too. Wouldn’t have to think twice.”
Phil stops in the doorway between the bathroom and the bedroom, their shaving kits in his hands. He looks a little surprised, like maybe he thought Clint’s priorities were different. Which is fucking crazy, but Clint knows better than to say that because Phil will get all tense and touchy. And yeah. Maybe they really should be working on saying the big stuff once and awhile, just so nobody gets the idea it isn’t true just because it isn’t being said. Clint’s been there, done that and he’s sort of got plans for this thing with Phil so he really isn’t aiming to fuck it up.
“You wouldn’t have to choose.” Phil says and which is different from I wouldn’t ask you to and Clint frowns. “You’re an asset. Push comes to shove, SHIELD will keep you. I’m the replaceable one.”
“Fuck that shit.” Clint says, maybe a little more vehemently than he intends to, because Phil arches an eyebrow at him. “There’s no way I’d ever work for SHIELD if you weren’t there.”
Part of that is deeply practical—no one but Phil will actually work with him except Natasha sometimes, at least not without bitching about it—and part of that is because Clint just doesn’t see the point. His loyalties are to Phil, not SHIELD, and they have been since the very beginning. Clint wonders sometimes if Fury knows that. Probably. He’s never been very subtle. Of course, on the list of Fury’s priorities, worrying about Clint’s loyalties probably ranks pretty low, considering Fury never has to worry about Phil’s loyalties.
Phil sighs, and looks ready to argue, so Clint reaches out, his hands resting on Phil’s shoulders, his thumbs grazing the skin above Phil’s collar.
“If it were up to me, I’d never let you give up SHIELD for me, but that’s your decision. And this one is mine. Okay?”
“Okay.” Phil agrees, his expression softening into something less combative. Clint considers for a moment, before leaning in the rest of the way and pressing his lips to Phil’s in a feather light kiss. Phil kisses back, just long enough to break the rules (but this feels like another exception, so it’s probably okay), before pulling away.
“We should get going.” He says, handing Clint’s shaving kit over.
“You never told me that MI6 gossip.” Clint complains somewhere between Syracuse and Albany.
“You didn’t have good intel about the bagels.” Phil shrugs.
Clint laughs and settles more comfortably in his seat. If his hand sneaks across the console to lace his fingers with Phil’s, nobody has to know. There’s a reason handholding never made it onto their list, anyway.